Last minute EU taxonomy changes water down sustainability criteria for waste, NGOs say

The EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy says chemical recycling should be considered sustainable “where mechanical recycling is not technically feasible or economically viable". [Nordroden / Shutterstock]

The European Commission on Wednesday (21 April), tabled a first set of implementation rules under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy, but changes made since a draft leaked last week have weakened criteria on waste management, campaigners say.

The green finance taxonomy is supposed to prevent greenwashing by defining criteria for climate-friendly investments, but it has proven a thorn in the side of the Commission because of fierce disagreements over the role of gas, nuclear and forestry in the fight against global warming.

Now, another criticism has been levelled by green campaigners at Zero Waste Europe, who told EURACTIV that changes made since a leaked draft have watered down the criteria around plastics and waste management.

Zero Waste Europe argues that the criteria has lost ambition on chemical recycling, a series of processes that allow breaking down plastics into essential chemical components.

The leaked draft had positioned chemical recycling as a last resort option over traditional mechanical recycling processes, which are less energy intensive. However, the final text changed from considering chemical recycling “where mechanical recycling is not possible” to “where mechanical recycling is not technically feasible or economically viable”.

The final text also deleted the stipulation that chemical processes must produce at least 27% less life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than manufacture from virgin feedstock to be considered sustainable. This 27% limit had also applied to plastic from renewable feedstock, but was also removed.

The requirement is now for emissions to be lower than the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of the equivalent plastic in primary form manufactured from virgin material.

“It’s clear that there has been a last-minute push-back to water down the technical criteria. Chemical recycling should only be used as a last resort for currently hard-to-recycle plastic waste,” Janek Vahk from Zero Waste Europe told EURACTIV.

“The new criteria now allows using chemical recycling for waste streams that can be mechanically recycled under the excuse that it’s not economically viable or technically feasibly which is a very loose criteria,” he said, adding that the criteria was meaningless and created competition with mechanical recycling.

Chemical recycling is still in its infancy but environmentalists have pointed to high energy consumption in the process, which produces carbon emissions.

The European Commission sees chemical recycling as a promising way of dealing with mixed plastic waste. The process holds the promise of isolating toxic substances contained in old plastics, making it possible to retrieve feedstocks that can be used to manufacture products which are as good as new.

However, it should only be seen as a last resort option – after prevention, reuse, and mechanical recycling processes, which are less energy-intensive, the Commission insists.

Chemical recycling should be seen as a last resort, EU official says

Chemical recycling should be seen as a last resort option to deal with growing amounts of plastic waste while more research is needed to reduce its energy consumption, a senior EU official has said.

Incineration excluded from taxonomy

Elsewhere, industry reactions to the taxonomy’s waste criteria focused largely on incineration, which was denied a “green” investment label under the EU’s sustainable finance rules.

The waste to energy industry complained that the published criteria removed all mentions of incineration, except for waste burned in cement plants, which will still be considered sustainable.

“We strongly feel that waste-to-energy plants should have been included,” said Maxime Pernal from the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP). Pernal argues that incineration helps to save millions of tonnes of CO2 by diverting non-recyclable waste away from landfill, replacing fossil fuels and recovering metals.

The European Waste Management Association (FEAD) has also called the removal a missed chance for circularity, saying waste-to-energy should be seen as an essential part of the waste management chain.

“With proper waste management plans in place, waste-to-energy installations are crucial to safely treat non-recyclable waste by producing electricity and heat. This is a potential that would be otherwise lost,” said Peter Kruth, president of FEAD.

Zero Waste Europe, for its part, welcomed the removal of incineration from the taxonomy, saying it should not be offered a green investment label due to concerns over climate change and air pollution.

Sirpa Pietikäinen, a Finnish MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), agreed with the removal, saying there is already an over-capacity of incineration in Europe.

“At this point, there is no reason to encourage waste incineration more since it is extremely ineffective and an un-ecological way of producing energy,” said Pietikäinen who is the EPP’s shadow rapporteur for the circular economy in the European Parliament.

The European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC) has been more positive about the criteria, welcoming the acknowledgement of recycling’s role in reducing greenhouse gases and improving resilience to climate change.

“Recycling is an economic activity which is inherently resource and climate efficient by substituting extracted raw materials and saving substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and energy,” said Emmanuel Katrakis, secretary-general of EuRIC.

“It is more than ever essential to scale-up Europe’s recycling infrastructure and circular value chains so as to reach the EU’s circular and climate-neutral strategic policy goals,” he said.

> The EU Taxonomy Climate Delegated Act is available here. A press release and Q&A are also available.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]


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